MasterCard's virtual reality purchases deliver not-so-virtual headaches

MasterCard's new effort in virtual reality purchasing takes the worst aspect of in-store shopping and skips the best of online. And they throw in easy unintended purchases.

MasterCard virtual reality purchasing app
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One of the most powerful attributes of e-commerce today is its relatively effortless due diligence, where a customer can easily see rival offerings, compare pricing based on the exact model number and/or specifications, and browse the comments left by customers (which may not always be valid, but that's another issue).

That due diligence nicety was swept aside by a MasterCard move last week to integrate purchases within mobile virtual reality (VR) environments. To be fair, this mobile VR purchasing effort by MasterCard is one of the first industry efforts to allow anything other than "sit and watch" in a VR app, so the effort should be encouraged. They may intend to add due diligence capabilities later on — remember what Amazon's initial homepage looked like — but such user-friendly efforts are not typical from MasterCard.

Here's how MasterCard described the experience:

"The app immerses consumers in a tastefully decorated home where they can browse and purchase the pieces with Masterpass, Mastercard’s digital payment service. This new shopping app highlights the value of the pieces, the story behind the inspiration, the complex manufacturing process, and the designers’ creative journeys in a new and engaging way. Masterpass enables consumers to check out from within the VR experience without having to add payment details."

So far, so good. But MasterCard then described the mobile payment methodology, which is where things get a bit scarier.

"Upon launching the app, consumers will be prompted to log in and begin an authenticated, secure session by using their Masterpass account credentials. After starting a session, consumers will be able to navigate through the home’s different rooms and browse through the collection by moving their heads left to right or up and down.

"Once the consumers decide and select the piece from the collection that they want to purchase, they can add it to the cart and checkout by focusing their gaze on the Masterpass button that appears at the bottom of the product description. When the consumer exits the application or the session detects that the headset has been removed, the consumer will be automatically logged out of their Masterpass account to protect against unintended purchases."

I am so glad MasterCard mentioned allowing shoppers to log out "to protect against unintended purchases," but unintended purchases are exactly what I envisioned when I saw their trigger for a shopper to "add it to the cart and checkout by focusing their gaze on the Masterpass button."

Everything in this environment will be new to shoppers. If I just look at their button for a few seconds, that constitutes authorizing a checkout? The fact that shoppers have to activate their credentials before going into the environment is heads-up number one. (This is akin to a free subscription that insists on full payment card details beforehand just in case the user opts to not cancel. How about letting the free trial run out in 30 days and allowing the customer to enter credentials at that point to subscribe?)

Yes, this is MasterCard just making purchases as easy as possible. But if it also makes unintended purchases easy, I don't see that as a win.

And the absence of any of those shopping due diligence mechanisms means MasterCard is replicating the worst part of the in-store experience rather than integrating the best of online and bringing it into a VR environment.

MasterCard's intent is admirable, but their implementation is lacking

That all said, I get the intent here. MasterCard is saying, "Let's see how easy we can make purchases in VR," which is an admirable goal. But they neglected what makes experiences good and attractive for shoppers.

Another concern is that these VR demos showcase products in a vendor-selected ideal environment. One of the best aspects of VR demos is to show these items in the shoppers' own environment (their home or office). Fortunately, that shortcoming may end by next December, according to Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of YouVisit, which is a MasterCard partner on this rollout. By the end of 2018, he expects the MasterCard experience to include "everyone's own environment, to get a lot closer to the product in the environment that is going to be used."

In short, this initial effort skips the best attribute of VR (seeing these items in your home or office), skips the best attributes of online (comparison shopping, comments), incorporates the worst element on instore ("Here's the product and the price. Take it or leave it.") and throws in a good chance for generating an unintended purchase.

Applause for MasterCard taking this early step, but not so much for what it includes.

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